Shengren – Chapter 2.5 – Philology, The Supreme Discipline

“One first hit, a good one, like changing the shengren into philosophers, and China is out. Cultural China is now at the mercy of Europe’s philosophical tradition”

The power over another people’s languages and names was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Any language has the potential and capacity to dominate and to direct the history of thought. It is about the people in control of that language. The question is: do they want to dominate and direct?

The philosopher Christian Wolff was the initiator of German language scholarship during the 1730s and 1740s. Before him, Latin had been the language of instruction in German universities. In 1721, Wolff, at that time still writing in Latin, came across a Latin translation of the “Confucian Classics” by French missionary François Noël and jotted this down:

After carefully study of the classical books of the Chinese nation, I was convinced that the ancient Chinese, in particular Confucius, had the same conceptions [as I do].[1]

That day was probably the secret birthday of German philology, but first things first: Wolff’s assertion, technically speaking, was absurd, if not hilarious; First, he did not study the Classical works of the Chinese nation, he only read a Latin translation of what – allegedly –  were the “classical books” of the Chinese nation. To make a point: which “classical books of the European nation” would Ku Hongming have to read to be able to make a similar claim of confidence? Did Ku not master the English and German language, and read hundreds of European books? Second, Wolff’s conviction that the Chinese conceptions of the Chinese nations and Confucius looked similar to the conceptions he himself held, critically speaking, amounts to a tautology: Latin “hominum naturae” looked like a “hominum naturae”, it was after all a Latin book (Europeans love to say it is a Chinese book, even if the English translation does not include a single Chinese character or word), and Wolff was a Latin-speaker. For example: a Chinese “hominum naturae” looks identical to a German “hominum naturae”; does this mean that the Chinese and the Germans now have the same “conceptions”? What Christian Wolff had in mind when saying that he shared the “same conceptions” as Confucius does, was possibly that he shared similar ideas about practical philosophy, which in Wolff’s time amounted to moral philosophy; or at least shared similar ideas with François Noël who had produced that Latin translation. It certainly helped Wolff to discover the same “conceptions” as the Chinese did, that Noël was a missionary and had produced a Latin translation that used familiar biblical vocabulary that Wolff had grown up with. About the Chinese text, the original Chinese, Wolff knew nothing, he could only speculate.

Philology is the study of language, and Wolff’s philosophical approach exemplified the way and general European attitude toward languages: language was a tool, not a truth. Most Europeans, for example, have never read The Bible in its original, in its language(s) of origin, Greek and Hebrew, then Latin; they most likely have only read a paperback edition, revised and shortened, of a copy of the Lutheran German translation of a Latin translation of other obscure translations of the (unknown) original. No surprise that nothing of eternal value is ever attached to languages in Europe, otherwise they would be crying a thousand years for all the tongues forgotten and all the languages shattered. No, to them words are just vehicles, little carriers that transported meaning, but could easily be replaced by another carrier, or even transport another meaning. This is probably not how the Europeans like it, but more how they perceived the development of their own languages during several histories of conquest. For instance, Rhodes of Greece had a Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Italian, and Modern Greek period. Languages come and go. Western perception of history as a linear process inhibits strong contemplation about things left behind: Those tongues were probably unfit, is a common excuse. After all, to rationalize is to make sense of things just happened. Thus, to a rationalist everything that happened will make sense. It is useless to say to Germany you missed something, for example a German Confucianism or a proper British-style enlightenment (I am not so convinced about the German version of it at all; too much holiness) – to Germany that does not make sense, for were it of any significance it surely would have happened. If however, it appears that pressure mounts, that people look down and say Oh, no, you are not China, you are not England or Scotland, the Germans will declare Confucianism a philosophy (of which there have always been plenty in the German lands), and enlightenment they will sponge up to Aufklärung (we are all Europeans, right). It is all a trimming, bending, and make-up, the feeble and grotesque effort of a small people to trim and reduce the big world to the few things it actually does understand. Hence Leibniz’s condemnation of foreign terms: “As to the foreign and Unteutsch words, the biggest question existeth whether and how far to tolerate them.”[2]

In Europe, ignoring the original Bible version or wording, Greek, Latin, German, English, Italian, whatever, a modern copy of a translation may just as well replace it.

Chinese copies of the Ancient texts, on the other hand, are still written in those Ancient漢字 hanzi (Chinese characters), and they can be read by anyone with an education in China (and beyond). Besides, Chinese characters have a symbolic nature, they are unique icons. If arranged in a gigantic table, they could be understood as a kind of “periodic table of Chemical elements”. In Chemistry, each chemical substance is represented by a code: “H, Li, Be, Na, MG, K, Ca, etc.” In Chinese language, each cultural thing, concrete or abstract, is represented by a character: 儒,佛,道,etc. There are over 45,000 characters still in use. These character have names, for example: 儒ru,佛fo,道dao, etc. If a Western person wants to refer to Confucianism it can say “Confucianism” or “Kong-ism” or “Ru-ism” (I made that up) or whatever he wants. However, if that person wanted to talk about the Chinese儒character, that will be “ru“. 儒 has its own unique etymology and is heavily loaded with Chinese culture, history, and tradition. If a Western person now came and said 儒 is “philosophy”, that person is clearly up to something. He may say “ru” is “philosophy”, that is the Western way. And if he says it often enough and hands it down to the common people, it will become convention and thus the truth. However, the character 儒, written in hundreds and thousands of Chinese text over 2500 years, is not “philosophy”. It never will be. In other words, the Chinese characters stand in the way of (the usual) language imperialism: one can translate a name, but not a character. A character is a concrete symbol. That is why symbols are so important to the human race: they stand for more than just a name. The Chinese characters stayed forever, and they reminded the imperialists of those old (horror) stories about China having absorbed any foreign culture that invaded it so far. That’s why the Westerners – upon first sight of the Chinese character system – invented a phonetic script or Lautschrift, and ever since then Latinized the Chinese language. From there it was business as usual: ru was Confucianism, a religion, and a philosophy. And Confucius believed in God;[3] Tian was the Christian Heaven,[4] or God;[5] China had “the true knowledge of GOD”;[6] “Fo is religion and philosophy, but without reason;[7] Laozi’s dao is similar to the ideas of Rousseau and Spinoza, and a bit like Hegel’s, too.[8] All the while the Chinese characters play the West for a fool – there is no “philosopher” in 圣sheng, and there is no 圣sheng in Europe, we cannot find a single one. The last time I looked it up 圣 was still a Chinese character. Richard Wilhelm says sheng now is a “Heiliger” (saint) – how convenient for the Western missionaries. And the philosopher Durant says Mencius and Zhuangzi are “philosophers” (p. 637) – how convenient for Western historians. Yet, ignoring the Chinese characters is like ignoring the elements in chemistry – how long can one do proper science without them?

From the point of view of aesthetics, words in European languages are ugly and constantly morphing and changing form (inflections, vowel alterations, conjugation, dialects, etc.). They convey and transport meaning, but have no value in themselves; which led to a certain European liberty towards form. Take for instance the following European words , all roughly meaning “thinker”: Denker, penseur, Tænker, pensatore, and pensador. There is indeed an insatiable thirst for variation and grammar in Europe. By comparison, the hundreds if not thousands dialects of China all have the same form for thinker: 思想家sixiangjia. If form is indeed overrated in Europe, a European language speaker cared less about the original words of The Bible, whatever language they were written in, as long as they conveyed the meaning that he or she expected. That is why the German thinkers usually ignore age, form, and value of Chinese concepts like 圣人shengren. Translating it wrongly as “philosopher” or “saint” was bad enough, but those thousand years of Chinese form destroyed, with no regret or afterthought, because they did not know any better, that was how things were done in European history: meaning China was constantly dispossessed of its forms which is: its words.

      Christian Wolff was considered the first true China expert in Germany. He could not read a single Chinese character. Most German philosophers could not read the languages of the cultures they wrote their dissertations about; thus the problem was not an individual one, but indicated a flaw (or liberty, depending) in the system: The European orientalists started to Latinize Asian languages. Instead of learning the fifty-one letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, for example, they transliterated the Devanāgarī script into fifty-one Roman letters. A child does not do that naturally. But that confirms one fundamental yet erroneous belief of the Western world: that there are meanings and that there are different people having different words for the same meanings (the Tower of Babel). In fact, that is not the case at all. If it were true, and all the languages in the world were talking about the same things only in different languages, than the Europeans could save valuable time and effort and learn Sanskrit without transliteration, and see what happens then. As far as the Tower of Babel idea is concerned, it is quite nonsensical to convert each foreign letter – let’s say in the Mahabharata – into Roman letters, because that creates an entirely new language – a transcript that has to be learned in addition and on top of it. If anything, transliteration (as opposed to translation) disproves the Tower of Babel idea. Take the following transliteration of a Sanskrit word: ayurveda. It still looks foreign. It is foreign. It demonstrates that those Indians back then were not (every minute of their time) talking about the same things the Europeans did. Could it be then, that all the vocabularies in the world to a great extent add up, rather than overlap? As terrifying as this sounds (to scholarship that would need a re-visit), it seems plausible.

      The European scholars did the same with the Japanese script (which is partly Chinese script, kanji, and partly Japanese alphabet, hiragana and katakana), Tibetan script, Hebrew, and Arabic script, etc. Now that so many languages could be compared phonetically (as they were all expressed by Roman letters), it was only logically to invent a vertical history of languages. The Comparative Method was born, which allowed the re-construction of languages, even languages that were never written, like Proto Indo European (PIE). The Comparative method was once described by the linguistic Calvert Watkins as the “reconstruction of grammar, sounds, forms, words, sentences […] before the human race had invented the art of writing.”[9] All the same, a “reconstructed proto-language” was not very different from the newly constructed Wales-Giles or Pinyin Mandarin: a “glorious artifact” indeed.[10] Humanists have long accepted the reality that not only engineers build new machines that did not exist before, but that humanists too create new things that did not exist before. Transliterations are a case in point, proto-languages are another.

      Transliterations do not help to study a foreign language faster, on the contrary they slow the study of a foreign language like Hindi down, because the learner will now have to memorize a “language in-between”, albeit an artificial one. European commentators justified transliterations as a means to describe foreign phonetics, but, technically, that was an excuse. The target language’s letters function as phonetics just as well. What was more, Chinese students, for example, when learning Indo-European languages, they did not need a “go–between” transliteration but learned the pronunciations of those target languages’ letters and words in Hindi or English just as they go, and so do many individual language learners in many countries today who are not orientalists. Since it is such an easy thing to do, learning the phonetics of the desired language first; and since the European scholars as a general rule declined to do it but instead invented go-between languages like pinyin, or Romanized Japanese, Arabic or Sanskrit, one could indeed talk about a Western idiosyncrasy: foreign thought was carefully prepared, before it was digested. The orientalists were not so much language learners but cultural gate-keepers. The following example shall demonstrate this. The next sentence did not exist in Sanskrit and India before the Europeans arrived (the Devanāgarī letters were replaced by Roman ones): “Hastadirbhadeva bahuprakarah yathaikah parinatyaniyah tatha jagad bhinnamabhinna duhkh-sukhanmakam sarvamidam tartheva.” As an experiment of thought: If all the other cultures of the earth decided to invent something similar to the above about English, the global lingua franca, the number of languages (transcripts) of the world would artificially double overnight. No one thinks about pinyin being an artifact, but it is one. People would notice if Russia and Iran had done the same and invented their own Chinese transliterations (in Cyrillic and Arabic letters, respectively).

      Foreign loanwords were commonly picked from the go-between, artificial languages, like Japanese zen or Chinese dao, not the original language 禅 (ぜん) or 道. (The Chinese very own phonetic script is called “Po-po-mo-fo”, or “Bopomofo” or 注音Zhuyin. Those are “letters” too, but are used only at a very elementary stage for children.)

      As for the Chinese pinyin, the West had created a new language, an artificial language, that helped them to pronounce Chinese without learning Chinese 汉字. Transliteration also helped the European scholars to compare and contrast phonetics, and because a transliteration was a new creation, the European scholars owned it and subsequently initiated new disciplines with it like linguistics, language studies, and philology; and new techniques like textual criticism, genealogy, hermeneutics, and etymology quickly gained attention. Those new academic disciplines and new techniques needed new terminology, and that new terminology was a Western invention, too. If students of Asia now wanted to know more about themselves and to understand their own culture better, they now had to go and study in the West; what was more: every time a European orientalist told a story about China, because of all those things like transliterations, translations, and new terminologies, the European essentially told a European story, and took full credit for it, and it is not just copyright that I have in mind.

      While the philosophers, who were naturally ignorant about the things they wrote (they needed only be concerned about the coherence, soundness and novelty of their argument) used translations, the orientalists had a much more powerful tool: transliterations. See the difference:


Will Durant:


The Superman of Confucius is composed of three virtues […]: intelligence, courage, and good will.[11]
Rodney Taylor:


Confucius qualifies the chün-tzu with three virtues: jen (humaneness), chih (wisdom), and yung, or courageousness.[12]


              Christian Wolff in the 18th century still read the Confucian Classics in Latin; later the Germans read French and English and finally German translations, and by the time of the 21st century, the language of the Confucian Classics now is English. In the process of transmission, the original Chinese texts was only relevant once: for the translator during the process of translating. The German translators between the 18th and 21st centuries, lest they felt how far Germany was lagging behind the British empire, understood the power of translations extremely well. They were particular eager to translate and transliterate the Oriental languages and foreign texts (hence the great leap forward in Oriental Studies), because, just like exploiting natural resources elsewhere, scavengering another culture was profitable too. Martin Luther had founded the German language (with his translation of the Bible), Christian Wolff had made it the language of scholarship, Leibniz and Christian Thomasius had promoted it as a xenophobic, nationalist tool to expand the German Empire, and Friedrich Humboldt had ordered the universities to dissect and analyze all foreign culture. The Germans furnished their world with ever new foreign material, new German vocabulary, and new theories. The German cause thus became a create force in itself and had to come to love and embrace philology, its most powerful tool. Philology was the Supreme Discipline in Humanities; it was philos (love) for logos(words). Philology was the economy of words, it was giving meaning, it was language games, it was creation and power, and it was pure invention.

[1] Wolff, 1721

[2] Leibniz, 1677, p. 547

[3] Haas, 1920, p. 21

[4] Legge, 1893, 7.22

[5] Wilhelm, 1914, 7.22

[6] Taylor, 1691, p. 8

[7] Hegel, 1919, p. 332

[8] Durant, 1976, p. 655

[9] Watkins, 1985, p. xiii

[10] Ibid., p. xiii

[11] Durant, 1976, p. 669

[12] Taylor, 205, p. 133